Last week, we talked about characters. But now they need a place. A well-rounded book has a setting. A good setting can create the atmosphere, whether it’s a real place or imagined. Real places are already established for the author, but they have to know it well. Imagined places require world building, and that can be a complex process. How do our authors tackle setting?
Question 139 – How do you develop the setting of your stories?
I develop setting the same way that I develop characters, by establishing a history, economics, rules, laws, mores, religions, geography, species etcetera and then strictly adhering to that until I need to ignore it, modify it, or do whatever else serves the story best. There were a lot of things for In Siege of Daylight that shifted or changed altogether as the story came together, but having the solid foundation at the beginning allowed me the framework to be flexible when needed. Also, thinking thoroughly through things like economics and trade really add some realism and nuance to your cultures and countries.
Growing up, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. A LOT. This can be dangerous, because it can lock you in the stereotypes of RPG races and countries, but the mechanics of world-building really do come in handy when applied properly. Early version of the world of In Siege of Daylight were a campaign setting, and by fleshing out the world with adventures, characters and storylines that evolved unexpectedly it really helped develop the mythology and depth of the world.
For my science fiction setting of Greyspace, its a pretty similar method. I did a lot of research into space travel, emerging bio-tech, military tech, submarines (similar to spacecraft in terms of crew composition and psychology, and then a lot of different stuff on mythology and folklore for the magic elements. Again, a lot changed, but getting that solid footing for your world allows the leverage to pivot when you need to.
Setting is dictated by the story line. On my first published novel, I set out to write a high-tech-hard sci-fi story. But the story line just refused to support it. There’s just so much going on all at once, the story would have been lost in the fog of all the gizmos and gadgets. My current WIP is set in a large city, because it features urban homeless people. As with characters, the specifics come about as the story develops. I don’t waste time on sketches and world-building because it changes as things come together, and I abhor “info dumps” that come with highly-developed worlds that authors are only too eager to show off.
I have a hard time imagining settings, so I use real places to inspire me. Sometimes I name them (Kingston, Ontario, Canada is the main inspiration for the setting of my novel The Magician’s Curse), and sometimes I just observe and describe without making mention of where they are. I love to travel, and do so a lot just for the sake of my novels. In fact, I’m thinking about going to Edmonton in the coming months because the West Edmonton Mall is one of my settings. Maybe we can meet for coffee again, Jay Dee!
For the most part I’ve had setting made to fit the plot and characters, and not really standing out otherwise. I’ve been trying to change that and have more interesting settings.
Usually in giant brainstorming sessions. It grows in leaps and bounds, and the options for stories to tell grows exponentially. I have a lot of basic information compiled from over the years.
Um, same answer as last week? Research. Lots of it. Setting and character can be quite closely connected in the ways they connect and contrast. I have a class on how to build character from setting on Skillshare.
Sometimes I just write them. Sometimes I’ll kinda prep ahead of time by drawing certain places or objects, or by making lists of sounds and smells of places. Then when I go to write them, I try to remember that settings should use all five senses, and that they should add to the general mood/ feeling of the scene. Often times, I have a lot of work to do in the editing process, because I’ll be so caught up in writing the story that I forget to fully flesh-out the setting. It’s a multi-step process, and I’m always going back and working on it.
In my first draft, settings are generally utilitarian, whatever is needed to make the scene happen. Most of my focus is on dialogue and action. There might be a couple distinctive characteristics to help me solidify what I see in my head while I’m writing. If the characters end up there more than once, I’ll probably add more details in that first draft and pull it all together with a more polished description during the first major edit.
A large chunk of my writing, thus far, has been based within the real world, and so I’ve gone about my setting development by simply describing places I’ve actually been. “Nowhere to Hide“, for instance, has the characters moving about in a zombie-infested version of modern-day Earth, so without actually naming specific places, I simply had my characters move around in towns and areas I’ve actually been and worked from there. The beginning of “The Other World: Book One” is similar; the high school I describe is based on the college I actually went to, and the town Tori lives in is based on the town where I grew up. Moving outside of the real world is more difficult of course, which I learned with the rest of “The Other World: Book One“. I find it difficult to to “make up” settings, so I tend to stick to my “real world” method, while adding in “fantastic” elements. Such as, for instance, the scene in which Tori first realizes she’s in a parallel universe: the setting is a simple field with a small cabin, but when she looks up, the stars above come in a variety of shining colors.
I’ve spent almost two decades developing just one setting, so it’s hard to say how that gestated (beside a bunch of notes in a high school journal that I just started adding onto infinitely). However, I’ve been developing a new setting on the side for a few years, in dribs and drabs, so… I guess it just starts with a core idea or problem to solve (for instance, make a world where zombies/undead are reanimated by ‘tainted’ water) then spin off of it to find the logic and culture that gets wrapped around the concept. Like…what is it about the water that does this reanimation? (It’s a goddess-of-undeath’s blood.) How did it get that way? (Enemies of the locals killed her, it’s her revenge.) Who were the enemies and who are the locals? (Enemies from overseas, locals etc etc…) What conflicts does this produce? What story seeds does it create? How many of those seeds can grow into the background-jungle of the main story, to add complexity to the world and themes but not entirely impinge upon the plot? Then, after I deal with most of those questions, I start researching and image-browsing for stuff that aesthetically suits the idea in my head, to build the visual facade of the setting over the bones of the stories it contains.
When I start to write a story, the setting comes to me in pieces while I write, much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I know what the final image will look like, but the details fit themselves in during the writing process. Most of my stories take place during modern times in a fictional location. Then I just make up the rest as I go along.
I enjoy writing stories on other worlds, both science fiction and fantasy. I do a lot of world building. For my Ariadne setting, I started out with the concept, and then I drew a world map. After that, I drew another map with 16 sheets of paper. I created mountains, rivers, seas, oceans, ice caps, and climate zones. I then created countries and cities, expanding the colony organically. I focused on a handful of places that are important for the first book. Although I haven’t done so yet, I plan on drawing city maps and any maps of important locations. You see, I love maps, and they help me visualise places much more vividly and with consistency.
How about you?
If you’re an author, how do you develop setting? Let us know in the comments below.